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Silent Spring for a Celebrated Bird

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 7, 2013

Gunnison's sage grouse (Photo:  Joel Sartore)

Gunnison’s sage grouse (Photo: Joel Sartore/ http://www.joelsartore.com)

This one’s worth reading, on the impending loss of one of America’s more spectacular birds.  It’s by John W. Fitzpatrick of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and appears in today’s New York Times:

SEVERAL springs ago some friends and I arose before dawn in Moab, Utah, to witness the sunrise mating dance of the Gunnison sage grouse: a surreal display of nine ornately plumed, chicken-size birds tottering about amid the sagebrush like windup toys, fanning their spiky tails and uttering a magical sound — “pop … pop-pop!” — as they thrust yellow air sacs out of their snow-white chests.

Now as I look back, I realize I might have been inadvertently paying my last respects. For the Gunnison sage grouse, only recently known to science, is going extinct, right before our eyes.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has a chance to stop this by listing this bird as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and I strongly encourage the agency to do so immediately.

The Gunnison sage grouse received its common name in the year 2000, after several astute scientists recognized that its long crown plumes and elaborate mating display were completely different from other sage grouse. It was the first new bird species to be described in continental North America in a century, and it was already in trouble, its range having almost entirely shrunk to within the Gunnison Basin of western Colorado.

Today, fewer than 5,000 of these birds remain, and they are rapidly dwindling. They are split into seven genetically isolated populations in Colorado, one of which includes a tiny group in adjacent eastern Utah. The species is now in danger of local population collapses, as each population edges closer to an extinction vortex. The likely loss of genetic variability would reduce fertility and survival, limit the numbers of new grouse and in turn make inbreeding even worse. As these insular populations become ever smaller, random events — one storm, or even an especially savvy coyote — have greater probability of wiping them out.

The federal Endangered Species Act was created specifically for situations like this, and it has repeatedly proved effective for stabilizing, and even recovering, species threatened by forces we understand and can reverse. The bald eagle, peregrine falcon, California condor, whooping crane, Kirtland’s warbler and the golden-cheeked warbler all have benefited from scientifically designed, federally supported regulations and recovery measures leading to steadily growing populations. For example, the number of condors, North America’s largest bird, had dropped to an estimated 25 to 30 birds in the 1970s; today, thanks to aggressive conservation efforts, there are now about 400 of these condors; slightly more than half live in the wild.

Some private landowners and energy companies have protested listing the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered, fearing that will result in federally imposed limits on how they use their land within the 1.7 million acres the agency has proposed as critical habitat. State officials in Utah and Colorado have generally sided with the landowners, citing the importance of encouraging voluntary conservation measures in these fiercely independent ranching communities.

Such cooperation is providing hope for another sage-grouse species, the greater sage grouse, whose numbers are also declining. Ranchers in 11 Western states are adopting sustainable grazing systems that promote healthy sagebrush plant communities and create habitat. But the Gunnison sage grouse’s situation is far more dire, as its tiny populations face continued pressure from conversion of sagebrush to irrigated agriculture and livestock grazing, residential development, expansion of roads and power facilities, invasive plants like cheatgrass and human-altered fire patterns.

Efforts by state agencies and private landowners to stabilize Gunnison sage grouse populations have failed. The prolonged drought across the western United States is further depressing reproductive output, and we are entering our last possible period in which emergency actions could save this species.

In 2006 the Fish and Wildlife Service declined to place the Gunnison sage grouse on the endangered species list after concluding that its estimated population of about 5,700 had remained stable over the previous 10 years, a finding that was challenged by many biologists. In 2010, in response to a lawsuit, the agency reversed itself and began the process of placing the bird on the endangered species list. The public comment period on this proposal closes on Tuesday.

It is urgent that the Gunnison sage grouse be listed as an endangered species immediately and that a federally financed recovery team of biologists, state officials, local conservation groups and landowners expedite efforts to halt the imminent extinction of this remarkable bird. Possible actions include establishing or expanding well-managed habitat preserves in all core populations, moving individuals to promote genetic exchange, and strategically restoring sage habitat to link the now-isolated populations.

The Gunnison sage grouse is an emblematic species for a uniquely American ecosystem, every bit as worthy of investment in its preservation as our finest man-made treasures. Future generations will marvel at the Gunnison sage grouse, as I did on that cool spring morning several years ago. But only if we save it today.

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